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Calories: The Key to Weight Control
Nutrition is an ever-changing science with one consistent message: If you are above a healthy body weight, lose weight. The World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences, and many other organizations consider weight loss to be the first line of action for decreasing the incidence of diseases such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. In 2007, the American Diabetes Association stated in its clinical practice recommendations that for people who already have Type 2 diabetes, even moderate weight loss (on the order of 5% of body weight) can improve insulin sensitivity, lower fasting blood glucose levels, and reduce the need for medication.
Yet, while the message promoting weight reduction for those who are overweight is quite clear, there is no consensus on the best way to achieve weight reduction, even among health professionals. There is evidence that supports high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets, and there is evidence to support low-protein, high-carbohydrate diets. But no matter what approach is recommended, there is one thing that is clear: To reduce body weight, you must reduce the number of calories consumed.
According to the North American Association for the Study of Obesity and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s Obesity Education Initiative, for weight loss to occur, caloric intake should be reduced by 500–1,000 calories per day from what a person is currently consuming. Eating 500 calories less per day will result in a weight loss of 1 pound per week, while eating 1,000 calories less per day will result in a weight loss of 2 pounds per week. However, it’s important not to cut back on calories too much. In general, for weight reduction, the Obesity Education Initiative recommends that most women consume at least 1,000–1,200 calories per day, and that men and women who weigh more than 165 pounds consume 1,200–1,500 calories per day.
What are calories?
Once you know how many calories you need each day to maintain your body mass — or to bring about weight loss or weight gain — you need to know the calorie values of the foods you eat. Scientists use what’s called a bomb calorimeter to determine the calorie composition of foods. This device consists of a closed container in which a weighed food sample is burned in an oxygen atmosphere by ignition with an electric spark. The container is immersed in a known volume of water, and the rise in the temperature of the water is noted to determine how much heat is generated.
Energy values of food can also be determined using chemical tests and analyses of recipes to estimate a product’s digestible components. This is how the values on food labels are arrived at, because burning food overestimates the amount of energy the human digestive system can extract from the food.
Luckily, consumers don’t have to burn food samples or perform chemical tests to find their food’s calorie content. This information can be found on the Nutrition Facts panel found on most packaged food labels. Many nutritionists also refer to handbooks such as Food Values of Portions Commonly Used by Bowes and Church. And information on the calorie and nutrient content of many foods can be found online at a number of Web sites, including that of the USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory, www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/search, as well as at www.thedailyplate.com, www.fitday.com, and www.calorieking.com.
However, no matter how much carbohydrate you choose to include in your diet, you will usually get more out of it by choosing foods that are unrefined or only minimally processed. Whole or minimally processed grains, in particular, tend to contain more fiber, vitamins, and minerals than highly processed grains and grain products. Simply prepared fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables also generally have more nutrients and less added sugar, salt, and fat than canned or otherwise processed fruits and vegetables.
Getting enough fiber in your diet is important not only for bowel function but also for its positive effects on blood glucose and blood cholesterol levels. Eating high-fiber foods can also help you feel full sooner, so you may feel more satisfied on fewer calories.
Like the debate over how much carbohydrate should be in the diets of people with diabetes, there is also debate over the appropriate amount of protein in the diets of people with diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, there’s no reason for people who have diabetes and normal kidney function to consume other than the usual protein intake of most Americans, which is 15% to 20% of total daily calories. However, the Joslin Diabetes Center guideline for overweight and obese adults with Type 2 diabetes or prediabetes recommends that about 20% to 30% of calories come from protein, unless a person has any signs of kidney disease. The Joslin recommendation is based on research suggesting that dietary protein aids in the sensation of fullness after meals and that low-protein meal plans are associated with increased hunger.
No matter how much protein you choose to include in your diet, it’s important to remember that most high-protein foods also contain fat, which provides a lot of calories. To get the most protein per calorie, therefore, it’s best to choose leaner cuts of meat and poultry and low-fat or fat-free dairy products. Getting more protein from dried beans and legumes can also help keep your fat and calorie intake low while raising your fiber intake — but don’t forget to count the carbohydrate. For a look at how many calories are in some common protein sources, see “Choosing Leaner Proteins.”
Because fat contains more than twice as many calories per gram as carbohydrate or protein, raising or lowering the amount of fat in your diet can have a dramatic effect on the overall number of calories in your diet. At any calorie level, however, minimizing the amount of saturated and trans fat in your diet and choosing fats that are high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids is recommended for heart health.
Saturated fat raises low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol levels in the blood, which raises the risk of developing heart disease. Trans fat both raises LDL cholesterol and lowers high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good”) cholesterol levels. Foods high in saturated fat include meat, poultry, dairy products, coconut and coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil. Foods high in trans fat include any product made with or cooked in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, as well as a type of polyunsaturated fat called omega-3 fatty acids, appear to be good for heart health when they are consumed in place of saturated and trans fat. Foods high in monounsaturated fat include most nuts, canola oil, and olive oil. Foods high in polyunsaturated fat include walnuts, soybean oil, and corn oil. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids include fatty, cold-water fish and flaxseed.
Even as you choose healthy fats, however, keep in mind that eating too many trans-fat–free chips, handfuls of almonds, or servings of salmon can still add up to weight gain if you consume more calories than your body needs.
Getting enough calcium
While calcium supplements are a possibility, calcium from food appears to have some advantages, including maintaining higher bone mineral density. So to get your calcium without overdoing the calories, choose fat-free or low-fat dairy products or calcium-fortified soy products, and eat more broccoli, bok choy, collard greens, kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, and okra. Dried figs, dried beans, almonds, and fish with edible bones such as sardines and canned salmon are also sources of calcium.
Getting enough iron
Some ways to keep your calorie intake lower when drinking alcohol include drinking light beer instead of regular beer (a serving of beer is 12 ounces), having wine instead of sweet drinks made with caloric mixers, or using unsweetened mixers such as diet soft drinks instead of caloric ones. However, because drinking alcohol raises the risk of developing hypoglycemia, it is recommended that you eat something containing carbohydrate — such as pretzels, crackers, or fruit — when having a drink. Some people believe that having some protein or fat in the snack is helpful, too.
Many major health organizations, including the American Diabetes Association, recommend that for health reasons, women consume no more than one alcoholic beverage per day and men consume no more than two. When you consider the number of calories in a single drink as well as the number of calories in the accompanying food needed to prevent hypoglycemia, this recommendation makes good sense for weight control, too.
Both aerobic activities, such as brisk walking, and resistance exercises, such as lifting weights or doing calisthenics, have health benefits and burn calories. The column entitled “Burning Calories” shows how many minutes of various activities it takes to burn 150 calories. When you consider that you need to burn 3500 calories more than you consume to lose a pound, however, it becomes clear why increasing your activity level without decreasing your calorie consumption is unlikely to result in much weight loss. Nonetheless, physical activity has been found to play a meaningful role in weight maintenance, and it has numerous other positive effects, including increased insulin sensitivity (which usually translates to better blood glucose control) and often improved mood.
Counting your calories
One effective way to become more aware of every calorie you put in your mouth is to write down everything you eat or drink for several days (or longer, if you can). Include everything, even the milk you add to your coffee and any ingredients used in the preparation of foods, such as oil or bread crumbs.
Sometimes just seeing your total intake written down can show you where the extra calories are creeping in and where some could be cut. However, if you don’t see a lot of snacks or foods not on your meal plan, you may need to get out the measuring cups and spoons or a
While keeping a food diary is helpful for many, it’s usually not necessary to count every calorie every day for the rest of your life. Once you have a good idea of the number of calories you want to eat each day, it may be easier to think in terms of numbers of portions of food from each food group. You might choose to use the food groups on www.ChooseMyPlate.gov (grains, vegetables, fruits, oils, milk, and meat and beans), or you might choose to use the food groups in the Diabetes Food Pyramid (grains, beans, and starchy vegetables; vegetables; fruits; milk; meat, meat substitutes, and other proteins; and fats, oils, and sweets). You can also substitute healthful alternatives for calorie-laden foods. Check out “Food Substitutions To Save Calories” for more information.
Since working out a nutritious meal plan that provides adequate nutrients, helps control your blood glucose, and enables you to lose weight can be a challenge, consider working with a registered dietitian who has experience with diabetes meal plans. Bring your food diary to your appointments so the dietitian can help you design a plan that takes your likes, dislikes, and any problem areas into account.
Statements and opinions expressed on this Web site are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the publishers or advertisers. The information provided on this Web site should not be construed as medical instruction. Consult appropriate health-care professionals before taking action based on this information.